How to avoid hacking at public charging stations

When you charge your device at a public charging station, such as airports, ships, etc. there is always the risk of "juice jacking", i.e. contamination of your device through the charging process. Here's what to look out for.

iphone usbc smartphone charger port

The juice jacking is an exploit which is based on USB ports present in public charging stations and which can potentially infect your device. It's a term coined by security journalist Brian Krebs in 2011 after he saw one demonstration of the exploit at a hacked charging point at the Defcon security conference.

Since then, security researchers have always created a hacked charging point at each subsequent Defcon security conference to demonstrate known vulnerabilities and raise public awareness about the security of public charging points.

The issue is not the science fiction of some sensitized researchers. It exists and on it there are warnings both from the FBI as well as from US Federal Communications Commission.

But what can you do if you find yourself in the need to charge your device on the ship of the Piraeus - Rhodes line and you have no other way but through the ship? Let's go see.

Protection measures

Avoid using a public USB charging station. Use an AC outlet.

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It's very simple advice. Do not use the public USB charging cable to charge your mobile. Instead, find a 230V outlet and connect your own charger and cable there.

Phone chargers are so small and light that they barely weigh more than the USB cable they connect to, and advances in charger technology have given us extremely small chargers with great charging speed and power.

The gallium nitride chargers (Gallium Nitride – GaN) are petite but strong. You can add a 30W charger to your work or travel bag and not even feel it.

Carry a power bank with you

Scorpion Charger
We'd advise you to carry a second charged battery with you, but there aren't many devices these days with removable batteries that the user can easily change. So if you want to keep using your device without relying on charging ports at the airport make sure you have a power bank.

There are power banks with a large capacity, up to 10.000 mAh that will fully charge your smartphone 2-3 times before running out. This time is more than enough for a 24-hour trip to the Aegean islands or for a transatlantic flight.

Use charging only cable or adapter.

Consider carrying a charging-only cable, which prevents data from being sent or received while charging.

Alternatively and for the case where the public charging device is a cable that connects directly to your phone (like on ships) you can carry an adapter that will cut off the data flow and leave only the charging (data blocker).

The USB data blocking adapters they ensure that only power (and no malware!) is sent through your charging cable. You can find them in various interfaces such as USB-A to USB-A, or USB-C to USB-C or USB-A to USB-C and so on.

Since most public charging ports are USB-A, you'll want to purchase a USB-A to USB-A or C adapter based on your needs.

It's worth noting that there's a big downside to using a data-blocking cable or adapter. USB fast charging standards use the data connection to identify the device and negotiate the charge rate.

No data; Without negotiation the charging rate defaults to the base USB speed. It's better than nothing, but it'll probably be slower than what you're used to if you're using a fast charger at home.

Pay attention to the messages on your mobile

If you plug your device into a USB port and a message appears asking you to select “data sharing” or “charge only”, always select “charge only”.

Lock or turn off your phone

Do not use your phone while charging if you want to connect it to a public charging port. Keep the phone locked or, better yet, turn it off.

It's much better to avoid using an unknown port altogether, but if you do, keeping the phone locked or powered off helps prevent simple login exploits (or a software exploit that's only available if the phone is unlocked or enabled).

Use wireless charging

wireless charger extra

If your phone supports wireless charging and you're in a location with a wireless charging pad, you're in luck. Wireless charging is inherently data-free, and there's no risk of your phone falling victim to malware.

Keep your phone updated

Last and most important tip for phone security is classic, keep your phone updated.

Juice jacking exploits are real, but there are no reports of their successful deployment. When security researchers find and report the exploit, it is patched by your device manufacturer. You will never receive the security updates if you do not update your phone regularly.

In conclusion
Ultimately, the best defense against a compromised mobile device is awareness. Keep your device charged, enable the security features provided by the operating system (knowing that they are not foolproof and that any security system can be exploited), and avoid connecting your phone to unknown charging stations and computers in the same way that you wisely avoid opening attachments from unknown senders.

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Written by Dimitris

Dimitris hates on Mondays .....

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